Beloved Aunt Helen

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Dec. 12, 1925 cover by Rea Irvin

Last time we looked at one of The New Yorker’s most prolific artists, Peter Arno. Equally prolific was Helen E. Hokinson, who preceded Arno at the magazine by several months as one of the magazine’s first regular artists.

Hokinson’s signature cartoons of often plump society women engaged in their various activities–clubs, shopping, dining out and gardening–were hugely influential in giving The New Yorker a distinct look and style.

In all she contributed 68 covers to the magazine and more than 1,800 cartoons (including the one that heads this blog entry). So strong was Hokinson’s identity with the magazine, a number of her cartoons were published after her death in 1949.

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Helen Hokinson (pbase.com)

New Yorker artist Richard Merkin later wrote (The New Yorker, Feb. 14, 1994) that Hokinson was “something of a stay-at-home, preferring the rewards and routines of her work and of an apartment near Gramercy Park and a cottage in Connecticut.” He observed that it was a “dismal irony” when this homebody died in a plane crash en route to a speaking engagement in Washington, D.C.

But let us remember the joys she brought to so many through her work. Merkin wrote that Hokinson was “a beloved aunt among the family of New Yorker artists…(she) created a type that will forever bear her name–the Hokinson Woman.” Here is Hokinson’s contribution to the Dec. 12, 1925 issue:

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The reluctant debutante Ellin Mackay was back for the Dec. 12 issue with a follow-up piece, “The Declining Function: A Post-Debutante Rejoices.” It would be her final word on the topic. As I reported earlier, Mackay went on to marry famed songwriter Irving Berlin, but would continue writing, most notably a number of short stories for the Saturday Evening Post and other publications.

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FREE AT LAST…Newlyweds Ellin Mackay and Irving Berlin on their honeymoon in Atlantic City. They were married on Jan. 4, 1926. (www.kuaike.co)

In this her second and final New Yorker piece, Mackay drove the final nail into her past debutante life, writing that balls and other society events were “no longer a recognition of any kind of distinction.” She concluded:

People are bored, at least for a while, with being sheep; they are weary of filling their hours of ease with tiresome duties; they have learned to go where they want to go, not where they want to be seen.

* * *

“The Talk of the Town “ reported on George Gershwin’s latest work of “ambitious jazz,” his Concerto in F, which premiered at Carnegie Hall with Walter Damrosch conducting.

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George Gershwin on the cover of the July 20, 1925, issue of Time magazine. (Time.com)

It was noted that Gershwin’s new work had the “beat of the Charleston stirring it.” Later in the “Critique” section, the work was applauded as an “advance on Rhapsody in Blue” and “sharply effective.”

“Profiles” featured Tex Rickard, proprietor of the new Madison Square Garden. The profile’s writer, W. O. McGeehan, suggested that Rickard had assumed the mantle of P. T. Barnum, and although he had given up his saloon-dealing days (promoting gambling and boxing) and now feigned “respectability and elegance,” his primary talent remained in rounding up the gullible masses for popular entertainments:

He will promote anything that will gather a sufficient number of Rubes for profit or for prestige…Behind his guileless exterior, there is a deep guile that is half benevolent and half Satanic…

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Tex Rickard (Library of Congress)

The following year (1926) Rickard would be awarded an NHL franchise to compete with the (now defunct) New York Americans hockey team. Rickard’s team would immediately be nicknamed ‘Tex’s Rangers,” a moniker that remains to this day.

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Maxfield Parrish’s Daybreak (1922) is regarded as the most popular art print of the 20th century, based on number of prints made: one for every four American homes. The original sold in 2010 for $5.2 million. (artsycraftsy.com)

In “Art,” Murdock Pemberton wrote a dismissive critique of the young Maxfield Parrish’s work, which was on display at Scott & Fowles gallery. It was Parrish’s first exhibition. Pemberton took pains to point out that although the work had technical merit, it was by an artist largely glorified in American advertising and not in serious art circles:

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The Dec. 12 issue was filled with Christmas advertisements, including this one that suggests even “sophisticated” readers of the magazine had a taste for kitsch:

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Included in the back pages was an extensive list of “Christmas Shopping Suggestions” compiled by Lois Long (who noted that the list was “not compiled for the benefit of the Old Lady from Dubuque”), while in “Tables for Two” she confessed something akin to horror that she had not yet visited Harlem in the fall season. Among her observations:

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And in the spirit of the season, the “Old Lady from Dubuque” made an appearance in the magazine courtesy of cartoonist Ralph Barton:

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Next Time: Social Errors…

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Why We Go To Cabarets

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Nov. 28, 1925 cover art by H.O. Hofman.

If you are looking for a watershed moment in the history of The New Yorker, this is one of them. The issue of Nov. 28, 1925, featured an article written by 22-year-old Ellin Mackay titled “Why We Go To Cabarets: A Post-Debutante Explains.”

Mackay was the daughter of a Catholic multi-millionaire, Clarence McKay, who was threatening to disinherit his daughter because of her romance with Jewish songwriter Irving Berlin. Mackay’s essay explained why modern women were abandoning the forced social matchmaking of débutante balls in favor of the more egalitarian (and fun-loving) night club scene:

At last, tired of fruitless struggles to remember half familiar faces, tired of vainly try to avoid unwelcome dances, tired of crowds, we go to a cabaret. We go to cabarets because of the very fastidiousness that Our Elders find so admirable a quality. We have privacy in a cabaret…What does it matter if an unsavory Irish politician is carrying on a dull and noisy flirtation with the little blonde at the table behind us? We don’t have to listen; we are with people whose conversation we find amusing. What does it matter if the flapper and her fattish boy friend are wriggling beside us as we dance? We like our partner and the flapper likes hers, and we don’t bother each other.

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MAKING MUSIC TOGETHER…Irving Berlin and Ellen Mackay Berlin return from their Atlantic City honeymoon. They were married on Jan. 4, 1926, in New York Municipal Court, a union that lasted 62 years. (NY DAILY NEWS ARCHIVE / GETTY)

Mackay’s piece provided a huge boost to The New Yorker’s circulation, which had dipped below a death-rattle low of 3,000 in August 1925 before it rebounded a bit with new and more aggressive advertising and marketing strategies.

The “Debutante” article was featured on the front page of the New York Times, and was also covered on the front pages of other New York newspapers and even in papers across the country. By the end of the year circulation of The New Yorker neared 30,000.

TIME magazine later observed that with the Mackay piece, The New Yorker “suddenly found that it had succeeded in storming the penthouses of High Society.  Its success opened the eyes of Editor Ross to the importance of the Manhattan socialite, to the fact that Broadway gossip sounds dull on Park Avenue.”

In The New Yorker’s 90th anniversary issue (Feb. 23, 2015), Ian Frazier wrote about the “débutante to the rescue in the Harold Ross era…”

Sometime during the magazine’s early months, Alice Duer Miller gave him (Ross) Ellin Mackay’s “Cabarets” essay. Jane Grant recalled that Ross kept it at the bottom of the pile of manuscripts he brought home, procrastinating because he liked Ellin and expected he would have to reject it, as he often did with others. Grant urged him to run the piece. “It will make wonderful publicity,” she said. Alexander Woollcott, the Times drama critic, with whom the Rosses shared a house…also championed Ellin’s piece. Woollcott knew her through Berlin, whose worshipful biography he had written.

Frazier writes, “In 1,076 words, the “Cabarets” essay had hit precisely the sophisticated young night-club-going, speakeasy-patronizing, up-and-coming, unimpressed-by-their-elders readership Ross was aiming for. The grateful editor gave Ellin Mackay a lifetime subscription to the magazine.” You can read Frazier’s entire article about Mackay and Berlin here.

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Mackay and Berlin pose for Cecil Beaton in the June 1930 Vanity Fair. (LIVEJOURNAL)

Mackay, who would publish several novels, would marry Berlin on Jan. 4, 1926. The marriage would last until her death in 1988 at age 85. Berlin would die the following year at age 101.

Here is Mackay’s full article:

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*  *  *

Even as one grand house after another fell to the wrecking ball along “Millionaires Row,” it was hard to believe that the Vanderbilt Mansion between 57th & 58th Streets would also succumb to the commercial interests transforming Fifth Avenue seemingly overnight.

“The Talk of the Town” noted that the doomed mansion, once the largest private home in New York City, was being descended upon by all manner of curiosity seekers:

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According to writer Adrian Dannatt, the 130-room, full-scale Renaissance-style château was “originally built to accommodate an entire regal court, a small army, huntsmen and ladies in-waiting, but it was given over instead to a family of eight.”

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A photo of the 58th Street side of the house, taken shortly before the house was sold for $7.1 million, demolished and replaced by the Bergdorf Goodman store. (newyorksocialdiary.com)

This grand pile was designed by George B. Post in 1882, with interior design by John LaFarge and Augustus Saint-Gaudens among others. Post, along with Richard Morris Hunt, substantially expanded the house in 1893. Demolished in 1926, Bergdorf Goodman Department Store now occupies the site.

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Opened in 1928, the Bergdorf Goodman store occupies the Vanderbilt site today. (Wikipedia)

According to Benjamin Waldman, writing for untappedcities.com, a few remnants from the mansion weren’t reduced to dust, including a pair of monumental gates relocated to Central Park and two of six bas-relief sculptures by Karl Bitter that were relocated to the lobby of the Sherry-Netherland Hotel. Apparently the other four disappeared without a trace.

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REMNANT…Caryatid-flanked fireplace designed by Augustus Saint-Gaudens, topped with a LaFarge mosaic, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. (Metropolitan Museum)

A fireplace designed by Augustus Saint-Gaudens, topped with a John LaFarge mosaic, was donated to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and is displayed in the courtyard of the museum’s American Wing.

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EPIC…In 1923 Cecil. B. DeMille built the largest set in movie history near Guadalupe, California, for his silent epic, The Ten Commandments. (Santa Barbara Historical Museum)

“Profiles” looked at the life and work of movie director Cecil B. De Mille. R. E. Sherwood wrote that De Mille was the “archetype of the motion picture director—a composite photograph of all the Olympian gods who have descended from Mount Hollywood to dominate the earth.”

Harry Este Dounce (“Touchstone”) reviewed John Dos Passos’ new novel, Manhattan Transfer, and noted that Dos Passos’ version of Manhattan was “not the hypothetical typical New Yorker reader’s, but as far as this department knows, it is very much like the real, complete thing—which is to say, like a hell of chaotic futility.”

In “Sports of the Week,” football continued to dominate the column, with a report on Harvard and Yale battling to a 0-0 tie.

With this issue, “Motion Pictures” was moved from the “Critique” section and given its own page under the Johan Bull-illustrated heading “The Current Cinema.” Theodore Shane wrote that he found Laurence Stalling’s The Big Parade “utterly satisfying,” but he was less impressed with the much-hyped Stella Dallas, which he viewed as a contrived weeper designed to draw lovers of such fare to the box office.

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BOO HOO…Belle Bennett and Lois Moran in Stella Dallas, 1925 (Yam Mag)

Near the back of the magazine the editors printed an exhaustive list of prices on the bootleg liquor market. The prices are quite astonishing, given that $50 in 1925 would be the equivalent of roughly $675 today, based on inflation. Of course that number could vary depending on all sorts of other economic and historic factors, but nevertheless fascinating reading if you are into that sort of thing:

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At the conclusion of “The Talk of the Town,” the editors offered this qualifying note regarding their liquor market list:

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Next Time: Courtin’ and Sparkin’…

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Debutante from Dubuque

There was much ado at the Junior League Convention in Boston, according to May 30, 1925 New Yorker. The lead item in “The Talk of Town” concerned the delegation from New York that “wished to exercise censorship over Junior Leaguers who move here from other towns—Dubuque, Iowa*, for example—and whose memberships in the League were transferred to them.”

(*Dubuque, Iowa, as you may recall, is where resides the proverbial “old lady”–the antithesis of a New Yorker reader).

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May 30, 1925 cover by Ilonka Karasz  (New Yorker Digital Archive)

The New York delegates pointed out that their league was “committed to accepting into membership between eighty and ninety debutantes each year; moreover, that it was forced to accept as members, also, those young ladies whose ambitions led them to shake the Dubuquian dust from their French heels and take the train to New York.”

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Debutantes practicing the proper way to pick up a handkerchief in 1925. (Buzzfeed)

To address this situation, the New York delegation proposed that such transfer members should only be accepted on a one-year trail basis. “Talk” noted that “It was not said, of course, that the object of this proposal was to allow local Junior Leaguers to inspect their guests against such provincial failings as might not be corrected in the period of twelve months…”

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President Calvin Coolidge (History Today)

“Talk” also continued mining the (unintended) humor of President Calvin Coolidge. When a Washington newspaper correspondent (identified as Mr. Sullivan) asked if the president might recognize the arts and letters by inviting some poets to the White House, Coolidge responded, “Who are the leading poets?” Sullivan suggested such luminaries as Edward Arlington Robinson, Carl Sandburg, Robert Frost, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Edgar Lee Masters and Elinor Wylie. After some consideration, Coolidge replied: “When I was in College, there was a man named Smith—who wrote verse.”

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Gilda Gray performed as the Hula-Hula Girl at the old Rendezvous supper club. Photo from 1922. (Wikipedia)

It was reported that the Montmartre supper club had reopened after being closed for a year by Prohibition authorities, and many of the old clientele had returned including Alice and Jimmy O’Gorman “at their usual table with the Storrs and Thelma Morgan Converse, now abroad but that evening fresh from Hollywood and the barber.” Another supper club, the Rendezvous, had also reopened, “although without the erstwhile influence of Gilda Gray’s glamourous shimmy.”

According to Wikipedia, “although the shimmy is said to have been introduced to American audiences by Gray in New York in 1919, the term was widely used before. Some stories said that her shimmy was born one night when she was singing the Star Spangled Banner and forgot some of the lyrics. She covered up her embarrassment by shaking her shoulders and hips. Although the shimmy was already a well-known dance move, Marianna appropriated it as her own: when she was asked about her dancing style, she replied in a heavy Polish accent; “I’m shaking my chemise,” which sounded to the English-speaking audience like shimmy.”

There was also a brief item on the changing fashions of men’s hats:

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“Of All Things” offered its first comments on the upcoming Scopes Trial, coverage of which would be a regular feature in upcoming issues. It was noted “If the anti-evolutionists win in Tennessee, anyone wishing to drink at the fountain of truth will have to go to a speakeasy…We are not without a twinge of envy for J.T. Scopes. A young high school teacher who can give a simple lesson in biology and become a great national menace is getting into the hall of fame on an uncomplimentary ticket.”

We also have our first mention of Mussolini, who “has granted women the ballot and the right to serve in war. It is understood, however, that the Italian women will not be used in actual fighting but will be saved for the heavy work.”

“Profiles” featured William Allen White, famed editor and owner of the Emporia (Kansas) Gazette. The piece was written by Edna Ferber, who concluded that “Bill White comes perilously close to being the Great American Citizen.”

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1925 catalog ad for radio receivers (Ad scan from a 1925-26 Brown Lynch Scott publication)
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Lionel Barrymore in 1923. He mostly known today for his portrayal of Henry F. Potter, a rapacious slumlord, in Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life. (Wikipedia)

“Music” featured the review of entire radio broadcast—the first lengthy account of radio featured in the magazine. The reviewer tuned in to WEAF, “a commercial station, renting the air to affluent concerns who provide the amusement or otherwise. At least two of the attractions presented (including singers, a piano duet) on our night of earful waiting were sponsored by business interests and on some nights the whole program may be provided by accounts, Consequently, WEAF is able to inundate its listeners with paid entertainers in place of song pluggers and ambitious choir applicants.”

In “The Theatre,” Man or the Devil by Jerome Kern opened on Broadway featuring Lionel Barrymore and Marion Ballou. The character acting was described as pleasurable, but the play itself was referred to as “nothing much…Two men, you see, exchange souls. However, if you wish you can stuff your ears with cotton and make up a dandy plot for yourself as the action develops.”